Misanthropy and Misology: The Hatred of Mankind and the Hatred of Rational Discourse – a short reading from Plato’s Phaedo

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“For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world.”

Introduction

In 399 B.C., Socrates was sentenced to death after being found guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth. The Phaedo, written by Plato, is an account of Socrates’ last hours and his death in the jail at Athens. Socrates spends his final hours discussing the nature of the soul, the relationship between the soul and the body, and the fate of the soul after death.

In this passage, Socrates warns Phaedo (who is narrating the dialogue and who the dialogue is named after) of the dangers of becoming a misologist; someone who hates philosophy or the rational discourse of ideas. He goes on to explain how this attitude develops in men and how we can avoid it.

Reading

The following passage is from section 89c -91a of Plato’s Phaedo, translation by Benjamin Jowett. You can listen to an audio version of this reading on Youtube.

[Socrates:]That will do as well, he said. But first let us take care that we avoid a danger.

[Phaedo:]Of what nature? I said.

Lest we become misologists, he replied, no worse thing can happen to a man than this. For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world. Misanthropy arises out of the too great confidence of inexperience;—you trust a man and think him altogether true and sound and faithful, and then in a little while he turns out to be false and knavish; and then another and another, and when this has happened several times to a man, especially when it happens among those whom he deems to be his own most trusted and familiar friends, and he has often quarreled with them, he at last hates all men, and believes that no one has any good in him at all. You must have observed this trait of character?

I have.

And is not the feeling discreditable? Is it not obvious that such an one having to deal with other men, was clearly without any experience of human nature; for experience would have taught him the true state of the case, that few are the good and few the evil, and that the great majority are in the interval between them.

What do you mean? I said.

I mean, he replied, as you might say of the very large and very small, that nothing is more uncommon than a very large or very small man; and this applies generally to all extremes, whether of great and small, or swift and slow, or fair and foul, or black and white: and whether the instances you select be men or dogs or anything else, few are the extremes, but many are in the mean between them. Did you never observe this?

Yes, I said, I have.

And do you not imagine, he said, that if there were a competition in evil, the worst would be found to be very few?

Yes, that is very likely, I said.

Yes, that is very likely, he replied; although in this respect arguments are unlike men—there I was led on by you to say more than I had intended; but the point of comparison was, that when a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments, or indeed, of all things, which, like the currents in the Euripus, are going up and down in never-ceasing ebb and flow.

That is quite true, I said.

Yes, Phaedo, he replied, and how melancholy, if there be such a thing as truth or certainty or possibility of knowledge—that a man should have lighted upon some argument or other which at first seemed true and then turned out to be false, and instead of blaming himself and his own want of wit, because he is annoyed, should at last be too glad to transfer the blame from himself to arguments in general: and for ever afterwards should hate and revile them, and lose truth and the knowledge of realities.

Yes, indeed, I said; that is very melancholy.

Let us then, in the first place, he said, be careful of allowing or of admitting into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all. Rather say that we have not yet attained to soundness in ourselves, and that we must struggle manfully and do our best to gain health of mind—you and all other men having regard to the whole of your future life, and I myself in the prospect of death.

Discussion and Further Reading

This passage raises questions about the nature of philosophy and kind of attitude we should have when faced with new ideas. Socrates argues that just as the misanthropist comes to hate mankind due to a faulty understanding of human nature, the misologist, or hater of rational discourse, comes to hate philosophy due to a faulty understanding to the nature of argument and debate. Just like with people, some philosophical arguments are very bad while some are very good but the majority are somewhere in between. If we are too easily persuaded by flawed arguments, disappointment and disillusionment are likely to follow when those flaws are discovered.

So one way to inoculate ourselves against misology is to gain a realistic understanding of what philosophy actually is and how arguments work. This can help prevent being persuaded by bad arguments in the first place and can give us the tools to figure out where exactly initially persuasive arguments can go wrong instead of being overwhelmed and reacting in a defensive or emotional way.

Another way to inoculate ourselves is with a healthy dose of humility. It’s easier (in the short term) to claim that all philosophy is bullshit than to admit that you were wrong and change your worldview. As Socrates said “Rather say that we have not yet attained to soundness in ourselves, and that we must struggle manfully and do our best to gain health of mind”.

For a more thorough discussion, Dr. Gregory Sadler has several videos on the Phaedo. This one gives a general overview of the dialogue, while his video on Misology and Misanthropy focuses specifically on this section of the dialogue.

To learn more about the ideas of Plato, please see the following links:

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